Before Superstardom, Williams Sisters Stunned On Compton's Courts Before the U.S. Open, the Nike and Gatorade sponsorships and the fame, Venus and Serena Williams were taking their first swings on tennis courts in Compton, Calif. It's a source of pride in the city.
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Before Superstardom, Williams Sisters Stunned On Compton's Courts

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Before Superstardom, Williams Sisters Stunned On Compton's Courts

Before Superstardom, Williams Sisters Stunned On Compton's Courts

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

On Stockton Street in Compton, Calif., there's a small white stucco house with a chain-link fence and an old tree out front. There's no sign in the yard, no plaque, no tour groups taking photos - nothing to indicate that this house, in this is quiet Compton neighborhood, was the childhood home of two of the best female athletes of all time. NPR's Daniel Hajek has the story.

DANIEL HAJEK, BYLINE: Before the U.S. Open this week, before the Nike and Gatorade sponsorship and the stardom, a young Venus and Serena Williams were given their first tennis racquets here. Just next door, Maria Gomez is leaning up against her blue pickup truck. She's lived in this house since the '70s, so she knew the Williams family. Her niece, also named Maria, was our interpreter.

MARIA GOMEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

MARIA: Yeah.

GOMEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

MARIA: She would see them run around the house, and their dad would train them a little in the back of the yard.

HAJEK: From that tiny backyard next door to the U.S. Open.

GOMEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

MARIA: She said it feels good and that every time they play that she always watches them.

HAJEK: The Williams sisters are a source of pride here. Richard Williams, their dad, was their coach back then. Known for being tough, he pushed his daughters to perfection on the court, hours practicing day in, day out. Venus and Serena cut their teeth on courts around Compton.

JANNA ZURITA: To be able to say that they're from the town that you grow up in - who wouldn't be inspired by them?

HAJEK: Janna Zurita is a council member in Compton. She used to watch the Williams sisters train.

ZURITA: A lot of the little kids here in the community, they look up to them. And they think they're great. I mean, they're two beautiful women that changed the whole life of tennis, and they're straight out of Compton.

HAJEK: They'd practice in rough neighborhoods, like East Rancho Dominguez Park, formerly known as East Compton Park. Today, the courts are repaved and there's a new rec center, but that's not how it used to be. The last time Andre Barbee stood on these courts, he says gang members would hang out on park benches just outside the fence.

ANDRE BARBEE: You see them - see them thugged out, you know, drinking, smoking their weed. But they'd never mess with us, so I never had a problem with nobody here.

HAJEK: Barbee was a 21-year-old limo driver and part-time tennis coach when Richard Williams invited him to train with his daughters.

BARBEE: Tennis was a passion.

HAJEK: Barbee was a tennis prodigy himself. So with Venus and Serena, he finally met his match.

BARBEE: Man, it was unbelievable. I never seen nobody that good. It was something I'd never seen before in my life.

HAJEK: And Venus wasn't even a teenager yet. Training meant hitting hundreds of balls with enough force to break strings on their racquets.

BARBEE: Every other day, I was restringing my racquets - my shoes, once a week. A hole right in my foot in my shoe, used to tape them up.

HAJEK: They'd run drills up and down the court, honing their power at the baseline.

BARBEE: Venus and Serena, you know, they stay at the baseline and just dog you. Just back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth - boom, down the line. Here, corner shot - boom, back and forth, back and forth - boom.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2015 WIMBLEDON FINAL)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: And she's done it.

UNIDENTIFIED CHAIR UMPIRE: Game, set, match.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Serena Williams is Wimbledon champion.

HAJEK: This year, Serena has been unstoppable, including this win at Wimbledon back in July. If she takes the U.S. Open, she'll be the first since Steffi Graf in 1988 to win all four grand slam titles in the same year. And Venus is on an upswing. On Friday, she advanced in the U.S. Open when she beat Belinda Bencic, who is 17 years younger than Venus. Playing in Compton is a distant memory now. The Williams family moved to Florida back in 1991. But this is where Venus and Serena learned the game's fundamentals.

BARBEE: I love them as, like, my little sisters. And Rich Williams, I looked - I loved him like a father. You know, he was like a dad. You know, I miss training with them. At the time, I didn't have a high school diploma. And he told me promise me that you'll get your high school diploma. Richard, I kept my promise. I have my high school diploma.

HAJEK: Andre Barbee doesn't play much tennis these days. But on this court, you can see it. He's reliving that year he spent training with Venus and Serena Williams. Oh, and for the record, the last time he played Serena, they never finished their match.

BARBEE: She didn't beat me yet. So Serena, if you hear this, you still owe me a match. I can still play. It's just I can't play long. Yeah, I can play a set. Come on, Serena, give me one set. (Laughter).

HAJEK: There you have it - a challenge - Andre Barbee, ready for a rematch on the tennis courts at the corner of Compton Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue, where it all started. Daniel Hajek, NPR News.

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